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By Karen Baker on

Poetry please!

On National Poetry Day (7 October), Search Engine launched a competition to find the next budding railway poet.

Whether it’s the rhythm, the romance, the frustration or the majesty, there’s something about railways that has always inspired people to put pen to paper and compose.

So I thought I’d use this opportunity to share with you the variety of poems and related archival material that we have in the collection. We’ve got poems by passengers, by railwaymen and by the railway companies themselves. We’ve got nostalgic poems, humorous and satirical poems, poems that mark an occasion – plus let’s not forget the lyrical poems, songs and ballads that have all used railways as their muse.

Here’s a selection of the type of poetry that we have and that you can read and enjoy in Search Engine.

Poetry anthologies

Top-left is Railway rhymes, edited by Peter Ashley and published in 2007. One Amazon reviewer found that these poems “transcend the romance of steam and enter the rich, dark and sometimes joyous world of human encounters”.

Top-right is Marigolds grow wild on platforms: an anthology of railway poetry, edited by Peggy Poole and published in 1996.

Bottom-left is The day, and other poems by Henry Chappell, published in 1918. Chappell was a porter on the Great Western Railway at Bath, and “The day” – including in this volume – is probably his most well-known poem.

Bottom-right is An anthology of rhymes by George Gresswell, published in 2006. Gresswell was an engine driver from Hull, and another example of a railwayman with a poetical soul.

We have even more poetry in the collection – search the NRM library catalogue for more titles by typing the word “poetry” into the search box.

Poetry in the archives

Below is the printed broadsheet of a poem entitled “A Dirge over the Broad Gauge”. It was written by A B Berry in May 1892,  and celebrates the battle of the gauges while lamenting the demise of the broad gauge. Object no. 2004-7761

Click the image for a larger view

Below: “The high speed train” by Ian McMillan. (The poem is rolled up in a nice presentation scroll). This was commissioned by GNER on their services to mark the launch of their new-look HSTs. Object no. 2007-7099

Railway companies used poetry too, as a form of marketing – as the two posters below illustrate. The first uses a poem to communicate to travellers why their train might be late and why, for security reasons during the war, they cannot be told why:

Object no. 1978-9894

And in this one, British Railways (Scottish Region) uses Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns as a way of promoting ‘The Land of Burns’ and its railway services.

Object no. 1990-7274

To find out how railways have influenced ballads, song and music, check out the websites listed on our Delicious page. And if any of this has whetted your appetite and you’d like to see these, or any other item in person, pop up to Search Engine on your next visit to York.

3 comments on “Poetry please!

  1. Another title in this line is The Great Machines: Poems and Songs of the American Railroad, edited by Robert Hedin (University of Iowa Press, 1996). It includes its share of doggerel and blues lyrics, plus this brief delight:

    I like to see it lap the Miles–
    And lick the Valleys up–
    And stop to feed itself at Tanks–
    And then prodigious step

    Around a Pile of Mountains–
    And supercilious peer
    In Shanties—-by the sides of Roads
    And then a Quarry pare

    To fit its Ribs
    And crawl between
    Complaining all the while
    In horrid–hooting stanza–
    Then chase itself down the Hill–

    And neigh like Boanerges–
    Then–punctual as a Star
    Stop–docile and omnipotent
    At its own stable door–

    Perhaps not the most sublime Emily Dickinson, but Emily Dickinson all the same!

    PS: any chance of either reproducing that broadside in more legible form, or else printing its text?

    1. Thanks for this! And I must apologise that you can’t read the poem. I’m still getting to grips with the work camera and I don’t think I fully understand how to focus! I’ll try it again and upload the, hopefully improved image. Failing that, I may enlist a professional.

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